note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
After the brief run of Alfred Uhry’s hit play, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” sold out in January at the Wellesley Summer Theatre Company, it continues to please theatergoers during its return at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre. Uhry, you’ll remember, is the only American playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, two Tony Awards, and several others. Although he’s best known for “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Parade,” in 1996, the Atlanta, Ga. Olympics commissioned him to write a play for the Cultural Olympiad, which resulted in “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” another award winner. It swept Broadway the following year, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama League Award and the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play.
Wellesley’s classy production boasts an excellent cast, directed by Artistic Director Nora Hussey, with her usual finesse; Ken Loewit’s handsome set and poignant lighting; and Nancy Stevenson’s historically accurate costumes, right down to the hair-netted hairstyles and shoes.
Set in Atlanta, Ga. in 1939, as Hitler is threatening Jewish annihilation across Europe, this insulated Southern, German-Jewish family is more concerned about assimilating in their upper class Christian neighborhood, while maintaining their class image among “their own kind”. They belong to the upscale Jewish Standard Country Club - not the Progressive, for “the other ones”. They’re proud of being the only Jews living on fashionable Haversham Road.
Petulant, melodramatic Lala, (Margaret Dunn), (who is unpopular, her mother declares in a whisper), is all embroiled in the world premiere of “Gone With The Wind” occurring downtown. She’s determined to get there, until her kindly uncle Adolph (John Davin) brings home a surprise guest for dinner - handsome new employee, Joe Farkas (Lewis Wheeler), a New York Jew.
Lala wants Joe to take her to the big Jewish event of the year, Ballyhoo, akin to a Jewish cotillion where the young elite socialize, but Joe is wary. So is Lala’s social climbing mother, Boo, (Lisa Foley), who thinks Joe is too Jewish - especially after he comments he doesn’t celebrate Christmas. The Freitag-Levys have a prominently displayed Christmas tree. Joe says he’ll go home for Pesach (Passover) instead, a foreign word to Lala, and which Boo calls “yishkabibble”. She later insultingly refers to Joe with the hated word, “kike”. Like Adolph, kindly sister-in-law, Reba, (Charlotte Peed), sets a soothing tone in this tempestuous household.
Instead, Joe meets and falls in love with Lala’s practical cousin, Sunny (Ashley Gramolini), who attends Wellesley College. Lala, who resents Sunny, dropped out of UMichigan, because she claimed she was homesick.
As Sunny and Joe’s relationship grows, their demographic and religious differences do, too, creating a rift in their romance. In the meantime, Boo and Lala are delighted, because Peachy Weil - of THE Weils of Lake Charles - has asked Lala to Ballyhoo, sparking their romance. Peachy (Danny Bolton) and Lala are a marvelous match - they’re both obnoxious.
Hitler and his looming threat to all Jews is barely hinted at in this tale of Southern Jewish anti-Semitism and society, excluding Joe’s concern about his relatives who are still “over there”. The play ends serenely, eloquently.
Although the traditional “yiddischkite” is missing, the low-key Jewish identity that Uhry depicts in “Ballyhoo” resonates strongly, not just to Jews, but to all Americans preserving their roots.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour play by Alfred Uhry, appearing through June 19 with the Wellesley Summer Theatre Company at the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, Wellesley College. Performances are Thursdays at 7 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3,8 p.m., and Sundays, 3 p.m. General admission is $20; seniors, students, $10; Call the Box Office at 781-283-2000.